Planet Opera: At the Salzburg Festival, A Few of My Favorite Things

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Editor's Note: The Salzburg Festival on Wednesday named Markus Hinterhäuser as its new artistic director, succeeding Alexander Pereira, who exits next year to run La Scala. An Italian-born pianist, Hinterhäuser has been affiliated with the festival in various capacities since 1993. Fred Plotkin takes the occasion of this leadership transition to consider why Salzburg is about much more than just the Von Trapps and Mozart.

In my recent article, the Salzburg Effect, I considered how this Austrian city fosters creativity. The most famous example, on a grand and glorious scale, is the entity known as the Salzburg Festival, a mecca for opera lovers if ever there was one. In my view, its only rival in terms of scale, impact and quality is the annual extravaganza of performances given each July since the 1880s at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The difference, though, is that Munich is a major metropolis while Salzburg is a small city in which everything seems to exist in terms of its festival.

As with everything in Salzburg, it is not easy to explain what the Festival is. To most people, it means the summer festival that takes place from late July to the end of August. Music festivals were held in Salzburg in many years between 1877 and 1910, mostly under the auspices of the Mozarteum, the institution that is the guardian of the legacy and image of Salzburg’s native musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The Salzburg Festival as we know it today was created in 1920, following the First World War and Austria’s descent from being a large, influential empire to a small nation struggling to acquire a new identity while not parting with the best of the past. It was founded by the composer Richard Strauss; his frequent collaborator, the playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal; conductor Franz Schalk; scenic designer Alfred Roller; and director Max Reinhardt, who was then the head of Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. This was a formidable lineup of major artists and they created a festival based on spoken theater, starting with Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann (Everyman)--an iconic religious and nationalistic work in the German-speaking world--plus opera, orchestral and chamber music.

Early on, the Salzburg Festival developed some of its important DNA and traditions, including radio broadcasts (later on, television and video), and the use of many historic buildings and spaces around the city as performance spaces. Gradually, different theaters intended for opera--which became the real attraction of the summer festival--were constructed. The festival flourished until 1937, with most of the top musicians arriving to do brilliant work, much of it documented on radio and recordings. 

In 1938, the Anschluss (the German occupation of Austria) meant that several top artists would not, or could not, work in Austria because they were Jewish (including Reinhardt) or anti-Fascist (such as Arturo Toscanini). This led to the founding of the Lucerne Festival in neutral Switzerland. The Salzburg Festival continued for most of World War II and picked up again afterward, including legendary performances by Wilhelm Furtwangler.

For most of its history, the summer festival has had quite a resident orchestra, none other than the Vienna Philharmonic. While other ensembles came to perform as repertory expanded, the Viennese have pride of place. This past summer, there were 12 operas in Salzburg, most of them with remarkable casts and conductors. One has to strategize to see as many as possible and then, of course, have the foresight, luck and cash to be able to secure tickets. Not surprisingly, Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; concert version of Rienzi,) and Verdi (Falstaff, Don Carlo and concert versions of Giovanna d’Arco and Nabucco) were well-represented in their bicentennial years. Mozart is always performed, and this year were Lucio Silla, Così fan tutte and an unusual Die Entführung aus dem Serail staged at the airport. I attended Nabucco, Don Carlo, Così and Norma (which I have already discussed). I will write about the other operas in upcoming articles.

The excitement and fascination exerted by the summer Salzburg Festival is due primarily to the unrivaled concentration of great artists in one place. For an American and, for that matter, most opera lovers, Salzburg offers the rare chance to see and hear world-class singers, many of whom seldom perform outside central Europe. Two of the most significant are the charismatic and innovative mezzo Cecilia Bartoli and the wonderful German soprano Anja Harteros. I have heard, and loved, Harteros as Donna Anna and Violetta at the Met and wish we could have her back. But she seldom leaves central Europe, even canceling her appearance at opening night of La Scala last December. When she actually took the stage as Elisabeth in Don Carlo in Salzburg, I pinched myself because she really was there! She gave an amazing performance as part of a splendid cast.

One also goes to Salzburg to discover younger artists doing interesting work (such as Martina Janková, the Despina in Così fan tutte) and older artists who might not receive invitations to youth-obsessed companies on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, I heard the venerable Matti Salminen as King Philip in Don Carlo. He is 68 years old and does not have all the vocal resources that made him so outstanding at his peak--he is the best Hagen in Götterdämmerung I have ever seen and heard. And yet, Salminen was incredibly impressive and moving as King Philip because he is an artist. I spoke to younger audience members who had never even heard of Salminen, let alone heard him. While they might have purchased tickets because of the star power of Jonas Kaufmann (who was fantastic in the title role), the fact that they could discover the artistry of a Matti Salminen deepened the whole experience for them. I respect that the Salzburg Festival has always emphasized both youth and experience.

In June, at Whitsuntide, the Salzburg Festival presents the Salzburger Pfingstfestpiele, a small festival often curated by one artist and centering on a particular theme. That artist is usually a prominent performer who will appear during the festival. This year, Cecilia Bartoli did the programming, which included her remarkable turn as Norma. For next season, from June 5 to 9, 2014, Bartoli returns and has programmed a lot of Rossini [PDF], including the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle. Bartoli sings Angelina in La Cenerentola and Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. The Salzburg Marionette Theater will present Il Barbiere di Siviglia (with Bartoli as Rosina on a recording) and there will be a concert with scheduled artists including Montserrat Caballé, Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras!

Though not technically part of the Festival, there are the year-round activities of the Mozarteum, which are most prominent during the annual Mozart Week centered on his January 27 birthday. These weeks have been held since 1956, the bicentennial of his birth. Splendid artists perform. The 2014 week will have 30 different performances. There will be Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and selections from La Clemenza di Tito in the Gluck and Mozart operatic versions. Mozart Week is a lovely time to be in town. The air is cold, the city is quiet, and the whole experience is intimate and cozy, with fabulous music-making.

Salzburg native Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was a key figure at the Festival for the last three decades of his life. He was very controlling and image-conscious, as artists such as Grace Bumbry have attested. Although he was an autocrat, he also attracted most of the greatest performers of his era to Salzburg to work there.

Karajan not only ruled the summer festival but, in 1967, founded the Salzburg Easter Festival and brought in the Berlin Philharmonic as the resident orchestra, which likely displeased the Vienna Philharmonic. Under Karajan and then Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, the Easter Festival (which most people don’t realize is not part of the Salzburg Festival) typically included one opera production with a deluxe cast as well as other high-profile concerts. In 2012, the Berlin Philharmonic’s relationship with the Easter Festival concluded and the Dresden Staatskapelle arrived with their conductor Christian Thielemann. They will make annual visits through 2017. Next Easter will be Strauss’s Arabella with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson, the prospect of which made me check if I have enough frequent flyer miles to get there.

To run the Salzburg Festival requires strength, political prowess and prodigious fundraising skills, even in a nation whose government is unusually generous to arts institutions. Helga Rabl-Stadler, born in 1948, has been president of the Festival since 1995. There have been five artistic directors during her tenure, in part because the person in that job is subject to criticism as well as praise but also because, in their prominent position, they tend to receive job offers elsewhere.

Earlier this year, artistic director Alexander Pereira accepted an offer to run La Scala. This past Wednesday, Markus Hinterhäuser, who has had different positions at the Festival since 1993, was named Salzburg’s artistic director starting October 1, 2016. In the interim, Sven-Eric Bechtolf (who directed this summer’s appealing Così fan tutte) and Rabl-Stadler will join forces at the helm of the Festival, doing artistic planning for the 2015 and 2016 festivals.

Photo: An opera simulcast in Salzburg's Capital Square (© Siemens)